A recent BBC article looked into a pilot scheme run by Norfolk County Council, where hairdressers and beauticians are being trained to look for signs of domestic abuse amongst their clients. The article highlights the case of Kerri McAuley, murdered by her boyfriend in January 2017. Shortly before her murder, Kerri confided in her hairdresser about the abuse that she was experiencing. She had been too afraid to tell her family or friends.
The domestic homicide review of Kerri’s death made the recommendation that hairdressers and beauticians be trained to look for signs of domestic abuse. There is a lot of logic in this. Victims of abuse often fear potential repercussions if they tell family or friends, and so a hairdresser may be the easiest person for them to confide in. Many people visit the same hairdresser on a fairly regular basis, and the simultaneously casual but professional relationship that builds up between hairdresser and client can foster a trust and rapport that can help victims open up. This training is undoubtedly important.
But the domestic homicide review also raises some other serious concerns. It notes that Kerri’s killer, Joe Storey, was already well-known to police, and he was subject to two restraining orders concerning two previous girlfriends. He had been ordered to complete a rehabilitation course two years prior to killing Kerri, for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. However, the date of his course was pushed back repeatedly and never taken.
Seemingly small failings and gaps in Storey’s supervision were what allowed him to go on to kill Kerri. The National Probation Service’s eastern division director Steven Johnson-Proctor claimed that at the time when Kerri was killed, the service was severely underfunded. He acknowledges that whilst efforts are being taken to recruit more probation officers, the service remains 18% under-resourced to this day.
So although this training of hairdressers is a positive step, we need to ask if they are being trained to offer an extra layer of protection to victims, or to plug the gaps in an under-resourced service? The questions is not whether this training is a good idea, but whether it will come to be seen as a cheaper alternative to proper recruitment campaigns, and the funding of vital services which can protect victims of abuse.
Hairdressers are also coming to be seen as potential providers of counselling services. BarberTalk is an initiative pioneered by barber Tom Chapman, after his friend took his own life. Recognising that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45, Tom decided to launch projects to train barbers to listen to and advise their clients on any mental health struggles they may be experiencing.
No one could deny that this is an excellent initiative. Hairdressers certainly are privy to people’s worries and secrets, and with the right training, they may be able to help and even save lives.
But as heartening as these stories are, they temporarily mask the cold hard facts. Women’s refuges have faced a £7 million cut to their funding since 2010, and as of 2016, there were only 78 spaces for men in refuges across the UK. Patients with serious mental difficulties can face waiting times of up to two years to access NHS counselling.
Behind these initiatives, our systems are falling short of the services they should be providing. And, when that happens, hairdressers and their goodwill start to be seen as a vital frontier in combatting these issues, rather than as an extra layer of protection.
Think about our current perceptions of food banks. They have increasingly become a common part of everyday society, and the Trussell Trust estimates that in the financial year 2017-2018, its network of food banks distributed 1,332,952 three-day emergency food packages. Here, charity takes the place of a robust welfare system.
The worry is that just as food banks have become established as a way to make sure people do not go hungry, hairdressers could become first points of call in terms of safeguarding. And it is neither fair nor wise that people who go into a career wanting to style hair, paint nails, or even make people feel good about themselves, should suddenly be faced with the responsibility of an established safeguarding service.
This has not happened yet, but is a projection of what could happen if we increasingly allow voluntary services to replace those that should be provided by the state.
And these services should be provided by the state. Without a properly funded police and probation service, we will see rises in crime, and more murders like that of Kerri McAuley. Without enough NHS counsellors, not enough people will be able to seek help when they have mental health issues, and we will see higher levels of mental illness and suicide. Without proper benefits and tax credits that afford people a quality of life, we will see increasing hunger amongst our children.
In Medieval England, barbers or barber-surgeons performed a range of surgical procedures, including amputations, in addition to cutting hair. ‘Physicians’, or professionals with an education did not deign to carry out surgery, and so barbers’ services filled a gap. I do not wish to be hyperbolic, but I fear that we may one day experience a modern version of ‘barber-surgeons’, and this time not through ignorance, but through austerity.